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Scottish Castles - Fortifications or Mansions?
By Peter Lawrie, ©2003
Scotland is renowned for her castles, largely as a result of the writings of Sir Walter Scott and the efforts of romantic architects and builders. There are indeed a great number of Scottish castles, the majority in ruins, others much restored and a few more or less as they were left when their owners fell from favour and were unable to bring them up to Georgian or Victorian standards.

These castles seemingly indicate a violent past, in which a proud warring nobility spent their wealth on the oppression of their tenants, defiance of the crown and feud with their neighbours. However, early modern Scotland may have been a far more peaceful place than the European norm. Many ‘castles’ were impractical for defence but were, instead, statements of wealth, status and power.

Until the 15th century, Scots nobles expressed their power and status in a manner not dissimilar to the rest of Europe through the construction of crenellated towers. These houses were essentially recognizable within a European context. Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany (c.1340–1420), the son of King Robert II of Scotland, and Regent of Scotland from 1388 until his death, built Doune as a residence during the 1380s. Modelled on a French original, it had a strong gate tower forming the lord’s private residence and controlling the entry to a large courtyard surrounded by enceinte or curtain wall.

Duke Robert's stronghold has survived relatively unchanged and complete, and the whole castle was traditionally thought of as the result of a single period of construction at this time.The castle passed to the crown in 1425, when Albany's son was executed, and was used as a royal hunting lodge and dower house. In the later 16th century, Doune became the property of the Earls of Moray. The castle saw military action during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and Glencairn's rising in the mid-17th century, and during the Jacobite Risings of the late 17th century and 18th century. By 1800 the castle was ruined, but restoration works were carried out in the 1880s, prior to its passing into state care in the 20th century.

Due to the status of its builder, Doune reflected current ideas of what a royal castle building should be. It was planned as a courtyard with ranges of buildings on each side, although only the northern and north-western buildings were completed. These comprise a large tower house over the entrance, containing the rooms of the Lord and his family, and a separate tower containing the kitchen and guest rooms. The two are linked by the great hall. The stonework is almost all from the late 14th century, with only minor repairs carried out in the 1580s. The restoration of the 1880s replaced the timber roofs and internal floors, as well as interior fittings.

Doune Castle (Barbara MacLeod at stock.xchng)
From around 1500, the Scots did not accept the classicism of France and Europe, but pursued an entirely distinctive idiom. In attempts to explain this, 19th and 20th century scholars constructed a rationale based on five propositions; that Scots Renaissance Country houses remained tower houses, that they were intended for defence; that they were remote from European influences; that they were ignorant of European architectural movements; that it required European architectural ‘missionaries’ to persuade backward Scots lairds to abandon the tower house.

The perception of the ‘castle’ as a fortification rather than a country mansion stemmed from various sources. Historians, from the 18th to the 20th centuries, while boasting the contribution of Scots to the British Empire, were equally determined to ascribe the advent of civilisation and peace to Scotland as being due to external factors such as the Union, the Restoration, or the Union of the Crowns. McGibbon & Ross followed the preconceptions, laid down by writers such as Robert Chalmers, that 16th and 17th century Scotland had been poor, barbaric and ignorant. Hence their ‘castles’ were variations on Norman keeps, designed primarily for defence.

Presbyterian writers claimed the Reformation as a watershed and crucial civilising influence. Tranter, while defining the buildings he studied as ‘houses’ rather than ‘castles’ classified them as pre- and post-Reformation. McKean, however, points out that the principal impact of 1560 had been the disappearance of the private chapel. The regency of Mary of Guise and the rule of her daughter, Queen Mary, were of far more significance to Scotland’s cultural evolution, in which 1560 was merely a mid-point. Scots had been deeply involved in the European Renaissance in music, poetry and humanist writing. Scots architects were just as involved in European architecture.

Under the influence of these views of Scotland’s barbaric and primitive past, 19th and 20th century ‘restorations’ such as Earlshall by Robert Lorimer in 1890, emphasised the martial character and reduced or eliminated the suggestion of the domestic nature of the Scots country mansion. Many of the features, drawn in ruin by McGibbon & Ross as defensive characteristics were in fact the re-use of earlier motifs for peaceful applications. Thus the ‘turret’ was a study or gazebo; gunloops were ventilation slots and cannon-mouths were drains.

The surviving remains of many ‘castles’ consist of little more than the base and decayed walls of the massive central structure, whether keep or tower house. Less substantial ancillary structures have usually fallen to the stone-robbers. Except by detailed archaeological investigation, little information remains about the original appearance and use of the buildings. Stripped of plaster, timber, decoration and furnishings, they can appear to be no more than military installations.

Broughty Castle (peter lawrie) McKean argued that the transition from the French-influence of the Marian period to English influence after 1572 is shown dramatically in surviving ‘castles’ of the period. Claypotts had been destroyed during the English occupation of Broughty in 1547-1550. Despite the presence of two nearby tower houses, Broughty and Balgillo, the English found it necessary to construct a true military fortification on ‘Fort Hill’, mid way between them. After the English withdrawal, their fort was demolished. In keeping with French architectural influences, Claypotts was rebuilt in the 1560s on a ‘Z’ plan with two circular towers surmounted by conical caps. This house and at least 30 others were modelled on the Renaissance chateaux of the Loire. Houses built or remodelled after 1572, followed a rigid rectangular horizontality. Round towers and conical caps appeared to demonstrate political incorrectness. Minor lairds, such as the Strachans of Claypotts, who could not afford to rebuild their houses, conformed to the new idiom by removing the conical towers and placing rectangular caphouses on top. It was later sold to the family of  'Bonnie Dundee' John Graham of Claverhouse, who forfeited his lands after his death at the battle of Killiecrankie.  Standing at the northeastern edge of Dundee, the Castle was inhabited into the 19th Century.   It is now cared for by Historic Scotland and its architecture is still intact and has hardly been altered over the years.

Nearby Broughty Castle on left (now a museum), was originally built on an island in the late 15th century. It is now part of Broughty Ferry harbour. It has been heavily restored by the War Office in the 19th century and saw service in the First & Second World Wars as a coastal defence site.
Claypotts Castle (City of Dundee)
Bothwell Castle (Krustee at stock.xchng) If the 16th century tower house was in fact a country mansion, or chateau, at what stage did the Scottish ‘castle’ transform from a fortification to mansion?

Early strongpoints, depending on the location, took the form of brochs, duns and hill-forts, defined by ditches and ramparts and in some cases surmounted by timber-laced drystone masonry. David I settled Norman knights where his authority was weak, but the land potentially valuable. These knights established their authority in their new lands with the traditional Norman motte and bailey. Where possible, natural mounds would be used, otherwise earth mounds were dug, surrounded by ditches and surmounted by timber ramparts. In the 12th and 13th century, stone keeps were often erected on or near the motte. In the 13th century, castles of enceinte were constructed, with high outer walls, enclosing a variety of internal structures. Bothwell is an example of this, with its slighted 13th century circular keep and a much later 15th century house within the old walls.

Kilchurn Castle (hislightrq at stock.xchng) Not many of our castles pre-date the mid-14th century and none of these are inhabited. Kilchurn on Loch Awe was originally built in 1440, but in the mid 16th century, Colin of Glenorchy converted it into a residence. The Castle was refortified as a military barracks only in the 18th century.
Dunottar Castle (peter lawrie) Dunottar Castle was the home of the Earls Marischal, once one of the most powerful families in the land. The castle covers an area of 4 acres on an isolated promontary and was once the capital of the Mearns and later a monastery. Sir William Keith built his house here in the 14th century. The oldest surviving building is the Earl's early 15th century L-plan tower house.

A small garrison held out against Cromwell’s army at Dunottar Castle for eight months in 1651 and saved the Scottish Crown Jewels, the ‘Honours of Scotland’, from destruction. The crown, (based on that used in Bruce's coronation in 1307), sceptre and sword are now on display in Edinburgh Castle.

The last Earl was convicted of treason for his part in the Jacobite rising of 1715, and as a result his estates, including Dunnottar, were seized by the government.

The oldest continually inhabited house may be Traquair in Peebleshire. In the 12th century, there had been a Royal hunting lodge here and it may have been a timber structure surmounting a motte. The oldest part of the foundations of the present building at Traquair apparently date from the 13th century and may have been the basis of a stone keep. Modified and perhaps strengthened during the border uncertainties of the 14th and 15th centuries, Traquair was transformed in stages during the 16th and 17th centuries into a peaceful chateau.
Edinburgh Castle (Image courtesy of -Marcus- at Castles were built on natural strong points as at Stirling and Edinburgh; where water could be used as at Caerlaverock; and to observe and control communications, as at Urquhart. Both Edinburgh Castle (on left) and Stirling have been much modified over the centuries and were military bases until quite late in the 20th century.

A network of royal and noble castles controlled Scotland in the 13th century. As these became English strongholds during the Wars of Independence. Scotland’s leaders systematically destroyed them, relying on the countryside to fight the invaders.

Some of these early castles, such as Urquhart appear to be ancient ruins, although they have been reused and adapted over the centuroes. Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness dates from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Following the Wars of Independence it was held as a royal castle.

The castle was granted to the Grants in 1509, It was partially destroyed in 1692 to prevent its use by the Jacobites.

In the 20th century it was placed in state care and is now one of the most-visited castles in Scotland.

Urquhart Castle (Image courtesy of James Barker at
Broughty Castle (Peter Lawrie) An earlier generation of historians described the 15th century as a continual struggle by the crown against over-mighty lords, but only rarely did this struggle appear to descend into armed conflict and sieges. Stell mentions a number of these during the 15th century, the most notable of which were aimed at removing the English from Border strongholds.

On an island in the River Dee stands Threave Castle, a 14th century tower house built by Archibald the Grim, Lord of Galloway. Originally a palatial residence befitting the status of the most powerful lord in the land, when the Black Douglases fell out with James II, the surrounding ancillary buildings were demolished to construct an artillery fortification. In 1455 James II used his siege artillery to reduce this and other Douglas strongholds.

Similar artillery emplacements of stone backed by earthworks surround Broughty Castle (built 1490) on the left, but these were built as part of the restoration in the 1860s by the War Office.
Threave Castle
Ruthven Barracks (peter lawrie) In contrast to the above two residences which have been later converted into military fortifications. A castle was recorded on the site of Ruthven Barracks in 1229, it was rebuilt as a substantial residence in 1459 by the Lords of Badenoch. Following the Jacobite rising of 1715, all remains of the original building were demolished and a purpose built infantry barracks erected in 1719, with two ranges of quarters and a stable block. It was captured with the aid of artillery and burnt by Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s army in 1746.

Realistic defences against artillery were rarely built in the 16th and 17th centuries, but by the London government in the 18th. After 1745, Braemar and Corgarff were converted into barracks and surrounded by low walls and earth mounds for defence against infantry and light artillery. Fort George was newly built as a virtually impregnable artillery fort at great expense, using the most modern European technology.

Royal licenses to crenellate’ or fortify were issued in the 15th century to trusted nobles. Historians have taken these to demonstrate insecurity and strife, however, even purposely defensive fittings cannot be unequivocally assumed to indicate warlike intent rather than symbols of prestige. Many changes in the design and fittings of tower houses before 1513 appear to derive from domestic and public needs rather than military.

Despite its appearance as a grim medieval ruin, Castle Kennedy in Dumfries and Galloway was built in 1607 as a family residence. It burned down accidentally in 1716 and remains a ruin as the Earl of Stair decided to build Lochinch Castle in 1864 as a replacement rather than restoring the old castle. Castle Kennedy (Mary Saunders)
Eilean Donan (Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at The fine series of Tower houses in the West Highlands dating from the last quarter of the 14th century onwards may reflect the wealth and stability of the builders rather than the insecurity of their environment. Eilean Donan was built in the mid 13th century in Kintail. A Macrae stronghold, it was partially destroyed in a Jacobite uprising in 1719, Eilean Donan lay in ruins until restored in 1932.

Dunvegan on the right is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland and has been the ancestral home of the Chiefs of Clan MacLeod for 800 years. It remains a family home today.

Dunvegan Castle (Image courtesy of James Barker at
Fyvie Castle Preston Tower (Peter Lawrie) Fyvie Castle is an ancient site which had a royal fortress predating the Wars of Independence. Robert III granted Fyvie to the Preston family in the late 14th century and they erected their tower house on the site of the earlier fortress. The original 'Preston' tower (illustrated on the left) is now the eastern part of the south frontage. The matching western tower was erected by the Meldrum family in the 16th century.

The Seton tower in the centre of the South range (on right) was erected at the start of the 17th century by Alexander Seton, 1st Earl of Dunfermline and Chancellor of Scotland.

Subsequent owners, the Gordon and Leith families have added substantially to this palatial residence on the Northern side..

When Montrose occupied the castle in 1644, his men built defensive entrenchments around it as the castle itself was not defensible.

Fyvie Castle Seton Tower (Peter Lawrie)
James Hamilton of Finnart, a noted soldier, architect of the Palace of Stirling, and favourite of James V was executed for treason in 1540. He designed his house of Craignethan for defence against assault with a deep stone-faced ditch, rampart and carponier, but it has been suggested that this was merely for show. Hamilton was responsible for a similar work at Cadzow and assisted James V in his unsuccessful assault on Tantallon in 1528, one of the most formidable private seats in Scotland. These examples were exceptional in Scotland during a period in which military technology advanced rapidly in Europe. The complex and expensive defences, so characteristic of much of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries were otherwise almost unknown in Scotland.
Following Flodden in 1513, the derelict walls of Edinburgh were rebuilt although, in the event, the English army did not approach the capital. The Scots and English governments invested heavily in the defence of border strongholds during the 16th century, but these were Royal fortresses not residences. With the exception of the border zone up to 1603, the 16th century was largely peaceful.

Highland conflicts grew out of the vacuum created by the abolition of the Lordship of the Isles in 1492 and the subsequent growth of Clan Campbell but rarely spilled into the Lowland east and south. More than 300 blood feuds were documented in the period 1573-1625, but the numbers demonstrated increasing control by the crown, rather than levels of violence. Cases of actual murder and destruction of houses were very few. It is noteworthy that the conflicts of the 17th century religious wars took place mainly in the field, not in static sieges. Gentlemen preferred to abandon their houses, rather than have them destroyed by siege.

Glamis Castle (peter lawrie) Fenwick described Glamis (on the left) as ‘the most ancient Scottish house which is actually a castle and not a tower or a manor’ Glamis is situated on the plain of Strathmore and does not have an elevated or strategic site. It has a mid 15th century tower at its core, but is essentially a 16th century chateau which has been much enlarged in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Its appearance owes everything to an architectural expression of the wealth of its owners, but almost nothing to their defensive needs. At least Glamis has always been the seat of a noble family.

An Aberdeen timber merchant built Craigievar for his own use. It has become one of the most photographed of Scottish castles.
Tranter described Methven (on the right) near Perth, as a great Stewart House, substantially remodelled by Esme Stuart, Sieur d’Aubigny in the 16th century, before being sold by the 2nd Duke of Lennox in 1664. McKean concluded that almost nothing remains of this earlier house, which was completely rebuilt by a successful Perth merchant, Patrick Smyth of Braco in 1684, as a compact new building aping the earlier forms with round towers at each corner. Smyth used many of the same craftsmen who had been employed on the rebuilding of the Duke of Atholl’s palace. At the same time, the House of Tarbat, the home of the Earl of Cromartie was ‘Methvenised’ with Smyth being described as a ‘servant’ of the Earl. Methven Castle (peter Lawrie)
Cawdor Castle (Mike 256 at stock.xchng) Cawdor Castle is another example of an early castle converted into a country house. It dates from 1454 or earlier as a simple tower house but has been expanded numerous times in the succeeding centuries. In 1510 the heiress of the Calders, Muriel, married Sir John Campbell of Muckairn who set about extending the castle. Further improvements were made by John Campbell, 3rd of Cawdor. During the 19th century, the architects Mackenzie and Ross were commissioned to add the southern and eastern ranges to enclose a courtyard, accessed by a drawbridge.
In summary, the War of Independence saw the destruction of almost all of the Norman fortresses. The turbulence of the later 14th and 15th centuries led to the construction and repair of some defensive castles although the monarchy kept a virtual monopoly of artillery and took care not to allow subjects to become over-mighty. Apart from border skirmishing and Highland feuding, from the 15th century there was no real prospect of invasion and little need for armed defence against neighbours. Increasing prosperity in the 16th century along with exposure to European ideas and renaissance thought saw a Scottish response, totally different from that of England, in terms of houses of increasing comfort, which continued to incorporate architectural elements symbolising ancient power. The decay of the buildings surviving from this time allied with misconceptions of Scotland’s past led to a mythology of grim, barbaric and uncomfortable defensive fortresses preceding the classical mansions of the 18th century.
Brown, KM, Bloodfeud in Scotland 1573-1625, Edinburgh, 1986
Caldwell, D, Scottish Weapons and Fortifications 1100-1800, Edinburgh, 1981
Fenwick, H., Scotland’s Historic Buildings, London, 1974
McKean, C. The Scottish Chateau. The Country House in Renaissance Scotland. Stroud, 2001
McKean, C. The Politics of Architecture in 16th century Scotland, in History Scotland, Vol 3 No 5, October 2003, p13-19
Tranter, N. The Fortified House in Scotland, Edinburgh. 1977